Asean Fails to Single Out China Over South China Sea at Meeting

  • Asean has history of disagreements over statements on issue
  • Meeting of Asean foreign ministers first since tribunal ruling

Southeast Asian Nations Divided on South China Sea

Southeast Asian nations failed to take a tough stance on maritime disputes in their first meeting after an international tribunal rejected China’s claim to exclusive control of most of the South China Sea.

Foreign ministers from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations said they were pleased with the progress of ties with China, and made no specific mention of a ruling this month that undermined Chinese claims to sovereignty in the disputed waters. The Philippines, which brought the case against China, had called for Asean to effectively address tensions in the South China Sea.

The communique from the ministerial meeting in Laos did not cite China by name. Instead, it said ministers remained “seriously concerned over recent and ongoing developments and took note of the concerns expressed by some ministers on the land reclamations and escalation of activities in the area.” Ministers called for self-restraint by countries in a waterway that hosts more than $5 trillion in international trade each year.

There was nothing new in the statement and it wasn’t surprising the tribunal’s verdict was absent, said Ian Storey, a senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore. "It was always very doubtful that Asean would be able to close ranks and issue a joint statement in support of the ruling."

For an analysis of China’s relations with Asian nations, click here.

The Permanent Court of Arbitration said on July 12 that China’s land reclamation and other efforts to assert control over the South China Sea had "aggravated" tensions, "inflicted irreparable harm" to the environment and "violated" Philippine sovereign rights. Asean, which operates on a consensus basis, has in the past struggled to come up with statements on the issue.

"Asean must effectively address the security challenges affecting the region, especially the on-going developments in the South China Sea,” Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay said at the meeting in Vientiane, according to a statement issued Monday. The bloc should issue a statement supporting legal and diplomatic efforts for a peaceful resolution to the disputes, he said.

The South China Sea matter is a test of the unity and central role of Asean, Vietnam’s government said in a statement on its website, referring to the Laos meeting. Indonesia’s foreign minister said in a statement that cohesion was needed to realize Asean’s goals, especially given current regional dynamics.

Overlapping Claims

China’s claims to the waters, where it has reclaimed thousands of acres of land and boosted its military presence, overlap those of Asean nations including the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, and Malaysia. China argues territorial disputes have nothing to do with its relationship with Asean and has dismissed the ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration.

Cambodia and Laos have in the past been accused of blocking statements on the dispute. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who is attending broader summits in Laos this week held alongside Asean, said Sunday his country highly appreciates Cambodia’s efforts to uphold justice over the South China Sea issue, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.

"We will not allow external forces to cause turbulence in the region by hyping up the so-called South China Sea arbitration," Xinhua reported Wang as saying,

China, which is Asean’s largest trading partner, wants the disputes settled on a bilateral basis.

Asean Disagreements

Asean most recently struggled to agree on wording on the issue in June, when Malaysia released and then retracted a joint statement from foreign ministers that expressed "serious concerns" over developments in the waters. That statement specifically mentioned China by name -- a first for the bloc when calling for a lowering of tensions.

The statement was withdrawn after China lobbied Laos as holder of the rotating Asean chair, a Southeast Asian government official with knowledge of the discussions said at the time.

Malaysia Foreign Minister Anifah Aman, who had been on the agenda to co-chair a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, decided to skip this week’s meeting at the last minute. Anifah had other urgent matters to attend to, said a foreign ministry official who asked not to be identified, citing government policy.

In 2012, Asean failed to issue a joint statement for the first time in its history due to disagreements on the South China Sea. After the meeting collapsed, Cambodia denied it had fallen prey to pressure from China to avoid raising the issue in the statement. China had warned nations beforehand to not mention the territorial spats.

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